If ever there was a time to love life, now is it, says Janet Menzies – and the art of Elie Lambert is the ideal backdrop to this celebration
Brilliant primary colours capture the magic of racing in Belgian artist Elie Lambert’s work, depicting Epsom on Derby Day or the buzzing grandstand at Chantilly.
For more sporting artists, Chris Sharp discusses how a childhood spent fishing has influenced his work. And Dee Taylor combines the pop-art of Lichtenstein with the colour of the racecourse to winning effect.
As we emerge from the longest period of national grimness since the three-day week, how better to celebrate than plunge into the art of Elie Lambert, who says: “There is not much philosophy in my work. I just capture a moment of intense happiness to be alive, surrounded by the generous nature of our racecourses, stud farms, and the beauty of a horse.”
To those thirsty for the sparkle of racing, Lambert’s work is a refreshing reminder of the fizz of the track. Cresty-necked thoroughbreds in bright bay, chestnut, black and grey stride across uncompromisingly emerald turf, accompanied by tribes of spindly yet elegant jockeys. The racecourses are instantly recognisable: umbrella pines at Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Riviera; the famous red double-decker at Epsom on Derby Day; the grandstand at Chantilly. Simple, direct composition and brilliant colours give a glowing intensity to his paintings that exactly reproduces the racegoer’s feeling on cheering home a winner or, frankly, quaffing the second or even third glass of champagne.
Lambert leaves no doubt: he is for life. As a Belgian artist (born in Brussels in 1949) this is a more conscious decision than might appear. Belgium is a divided country, balancing different languages and cultures. In the south, no one apologises for enjoying life. In the north, guilt became an art form in the Flemish ‘Vanitas’ school, which depicts a memento mori as a reminder that death comes to us all.
A palette of primary colours
Asked about his palette of primary colours, Lambert says: “I think it is a reaction against the dark, yellow and brown painting of the Flemish schools that I hate. I am more influenced by artists from my generation like David Hockney, Jack Butler Yeats and then the great classic in my genre, Alfred Munnings. But the master is without a shadow of a doubt a chap called Picasso.”
His choice of subject was never in doubt: “I grew up in the middle of stud farms where all activity was around breeding and thoroughbred racing – always in wonderful surroundings. The landscape was full of natural beauty, but also the buildings like the stables, castle or a grandstand, especially the old racecourses, which fascinate me still.”
At school in Boitsfort, on the outskirts of Brussels, Lambert would disappear to his two favourite destinations: the Brussels Art Academy or the local training yards and hippodromes (racecourses). “Racing has always been around me or, should I say, I have always been surrounded by it. As a young man I worked and rode out in a racing stable, then I got a licence as an amateur ‘gentleman rider-and-trainer’. Later on, I ran my own bloodstock agency in Belgium. I must have imported around 300 horses during that time, and many times the five first horses in a ‘grand prix’ had been through my hands.”
Lambert’s career in racing began as a jockey for Vicomte d’Hendecourt, but his art was always equally important and he attended the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, followed by architecture school. Now settled near Baron Edouard de Rothschild’s stud, the Haras de Meautry near Deauville, Normandy, he remembers: “An important aspect of racing in my youth was to see a nobleman asking a stable lad some news about his horses. There was mutual respect between the two classes and that sort of attention has helped me to be a happy man. And then, understanding the influence of the British way of life in the racing world.”
From Goodwood to Chantilly
Of all the great racing venues, Lambert says: “My two favourites are Goodwood and Chantilly, the most stunning and certainly the most historic site in the racing world.” Yet it isn’t these iconic courses he has missed most during lockdown: “I live next to the stables and racecourse of Deauville. The trainers here are still coming out daily, although activity has had to be kept to a minimum. Of course, we haven’t had anymore the atmosphere of a racecourse packed with the public, but I think I miss most my good old Folkestone meetings, or the Monday evening sessions at Windsor.” A scene captured in his painting of its tree-lined parade ring.
The Osborne Studio Gallery will be exhibiting Lambert’s work from 14 June, its first major open exhibition since lockdown. Director Geoffrey Hughes describes Lambert’s work as: “a thrilling, altogether novel depiction of the Turf”. Most importantly, these joyful paintings give us permission to get out there and love life.
Elie Lambert exhibits at the Osborne Studio Gallery, London SW1 from 14 June to 3 July 2021. Call 020 7235 9667 or visit: osg.uk.com